Digitizing Electrons: How Are You Incorporating the Digital Economy into Utility Operations?

“90 percent of CEOs believe the digital economy will impact their industry, but less than 15% are executing on a digital strategy”

– MIT Sloan and Capgemini


The world is rapidly becoming a digital economy, relying on computing technologies interconnected through the World Wide Web.  Mass production is being replaced by customized products produced on personalized demand via online stores. Physical experiences are turning into virtual reality.  Linear relationships are turning into networked connections. Each of these trends that are occurring in other sectors portend dramatic changes in the electricity industry.  Does your utility have a digital strategy?

It’s Personal

An electron is an electron is an electron, and perhaps the most indistinguishable and homogenous commodity ever produced.  Yet, the functionality of those electrons is as varied as the equipment that they power.  Customization of the use of electrons has been around since Samuel Insull sold electricity to housewives via electric-powered appliances with the promise of less housework. Electric appliances served to increase demand and allow for economies of scale from large, centralized power plants (i.e., mass customization). Today, an expanding selection of power generation technologies is allowing for even greater personalization tied to how energy needs are met via back-up generators, solar panels, electric vehicles, energy storage and other distributed energy resources.  Individual controls also are expanding with smart meters, communicative thermostats, and home energy management systems controlled by online applications.  For utilities that think about their customers as industrial, commercial, retail end-users and streetlights, a shift towards customer segmentation based on technology, economics, demographics, lifestyle, attitudes and preferences increasingly is required.  The data to do this already is available. How do you segment your customers?

Let’s Get Virtual

At first glance, virtual reality seemed to be geared towards video games, and early investors were companies that offered game consoles and alternative worlds such as Skyrimà¢â€ž- and No Man’s Skyà¢â€ž-. Yet, virtual reality promises to integrate invisibly into our lives for everyday purposes, just like electricity did.  Train your line men in virtual bucket trucks fixing digitally-constructed outage problems. Use a virtual version of your utility’s electrical system to monitor where problems are occurring and how they might be optimally addressed without leaving headquarters.  Click on a building and see real-time energy consumption, assess energy management opportunities, evacuate an area in response to a gas leak, and perform virtual vegetation clearance inspections.  This will be done in Virtual Singapore, a twin city in cyberspace that combines a plethora of physical data from the Prime Minister’s Office in Singapore with 3D design software.  This simulated city can be used to monitor, plan, test and control interface with the physical world.  Virtual Singapore will be completed by 2018 at a price tag of only $73 million.  For only $349, Google Business View will provide you with a 360-degree tour of your utility service center, turning it into a 24-hour customer service center. What are you doing to improve digital interaction with your system?

It’s Time to Network

The electric grid is one of the man-made wonders of the modern world.  Connecting large generating stations across hundreds of miles to deliver electricity to end-users and their electrically-powered appliances, the power sector was an infrastructure network before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Yet the Internet increasingly is providing an overlay of communication, information and operation that can and already is being used to optimize grid performance. Digitizing data is the first step to creating a smart grid and the revolution already is underway.  But, don’t stop at real-time production and usage data!  Leverage big data from social media to improve operations. Incorporate the sharing economy to motivate new investments in community storage, distribution level provision of ancillary services and charging stations. Capitalize on the Internet of Things to monitor system operations with granularity extending behind the meter. How are you going to improve your networking skills?

Play On

The power sector has aspects of the digital economy embedded in its soul, engaging in mass customization, providing invisible services to a physical world, and connecting producers and users via one of the modern-day man-made wonders of the world.  The information age is taking it further. Be innovative and imaginative. Think outside the electrical box. Everyday technology can be used to improve utility operations in previously unimaginable ways. What’s your digital strategy?

About the author: Tanya Bodell is the Executive Director of Energyzt, a global collaboration of energy experts who create value for investors in energy through actionable insights. Visit www.energyzt.com. She can be reached at: tanya.bodell@energyzt.com or 617-416-0651. 

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